Archive for the ‘Natural Ponds’ Category

Tree Fern

Tree Fern – Dicksonia Antarctica

Hi all my gardening friends.

I just had to tell you about my absolute favourite plant at the moment, my gorgeous Tree Fern or Dicksonia Antarctica as it’s often called.

Tania bought it for me on my 50th birthday when it was about 18 inches high. Now, 7 years later it’s grown into this wonderful specimen!

What I love so much about tree ferns is the wonderful contrast between the rich almost lime green leaves and the hairy, almost weird looking trunk!  Tucked away in a slightly humid (when the sun shines) shady part of the garden, next to the stream, it just seems to love it.

It’s taken me a while to find the perfect growing conditions. Originally planted in a big clay pot I think it didn’t like the occasional dry conditions.

If you’re thinking about growing your own Dicksonia, my advice is take your time and find a spot with the perfect growing conditions. At upwards of £100 a go for a medium sized tree it can be an expensive mistake if you get it wrong.

I prepared the ground really well with loads of organic matter and removed as much as the chalky soil as I could. (One of the challenges of gardening in this part of Hampshire)

I keep it well watered, especially the crown of the plant where the fronds grow. I remove a few dead fronds each summer and it’s none the worse for it.

New Zealand Tree Fern

I don’t overfeed … every 2-3 weeks it gets a watering can of regular soluble plant food and apart from watering in dry conditions it pretty much looks after itself. What a plant!

For the last 2 winters it’s lived outside with little protection, other than what it gets from the hedge that is.

It really is the most wonderful addition to the garden. Oh, and make sure you buy from a reputable garden center as they have to be certified for sale in the UK.

It never ceases to amaze me how nature just seems to know what it’s doing. Give a plant the right growing conditions and it will give back many times over.

I feel sure you’ll agree the Tree Fern is a wonderful addition to the garden. Now all I need to do is save up for another one! 🙂

Hope you enjoy these pictures I took earlier today.

Tree Fern Dicksonia Antarctica



Back soon!

Best wishes,



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Learn How To Create A Wildlife Friendly Garden With The Rural Gardener

My bat box I put up last year in the beech tree is home to at least two bats.

Ever since I came to Blackbirds I wanted to create a wildlife friendly garden and having been gardening this way for nearly 5 years now I must say we don’t seem to have half as many problems with pests and diseases.

That is apart from the cabbage white caterpillars which are the pain of my life, so much so that I’m thinking of ditching brassica altogether! I won’t spray and don’t much fancy spending an hour each day collecting the little buggers.

Oh and the cheeky pheasants that sneak into the garden looking for any stray corn the chickens may have left behind, lovely to look at, but the males give out the loudest shrieking noise … usually when you least expect it.

The secret is to create balance in your garden between the planting and the creatures.
I’ve found the best way to encourage wildlife into the garden is to achieve a balance between the more orderly parts of the garden and the more natural spaces.

When you get the balance right, then you will significantly increase the bird, amphibian and insect population in your garden, which in turn will help you to deal with your pest problems. It’s like magic, I can’t explain how it works, it just does.

Take the dreaded cabbage white caterpillars as a point in case. I encourage the robins and blue tits by putting up next boxes in the hedge close to the vegetable patch next to the compost heap.

They help me with my caterpillar population and in exchange they have a ready made takeaway practically outside their front door

I understand robins are quite territorial so it’s unlikely you’ll attract more than a single pair, but my garden just wouldn’t be the same without my little companion.

That’s basically what encouraging wildlife is all about,  creating a balance, a harmony between the gardener and the natural world that isn’t always obvious, but rather creeps up on you the longer you garden in this way.

Take the humble Hostas as a point in case. Such a majestic looking plant, but I used to have problems with slugs and snails eating the fresh shoots in early summer.

Then a  a couple of years ago we built a small wildlife pond, and since then we’ve had no slug problem!  I suspect the frogs were attracted by the water, and in turn have taken care of the slug population.

Poor slugs …  lucky frogs!

Out of the chaos we have order
I don’t know about you but I’ve always tried to maintain a tidy garden but since I’ve adopted a more ‘organic’ approach to my garden I’ve begun to make changes and it’s producing tangible results.

For example,  I no longer close mow all of the grass, instead I leave some areas to grow long. As a result  wildflowers have seeded in the grass and are now well established attracting loads of bees, which in turn pollinate the fruit trees. A simple principle and very effective.

I purposely leave piles of logs and branches around the place to help bring in the insects for the birds to feed on. Wood piles are particularly effective around the pond as they provide habitat for the frogs and toads, especially when it’s sunny and they need to shelter from the sun.

Learn How To Create A Wildlife Friendly Garden With The Rural Gardener

This is were Dave and Trigger my adopted frogs live!

If you’re  planning to start a wildlife garden of your own, or perhaps you just want to try out a few ideas here are a few of the changes we’ve made at Blackbirds that we feel have  made a real difference.

1. Build a pond, or water feature.
Having water in the garden will always encourage all manner of new visitors into the  garden, but if you really want to score highly with the local amphibian population running water is even better!

How To Create A Wildlife Friendly Garden

Water will bring in all sorts of wonderful creatures and insects.

Try to leave at least one side of the pond to grow away undisturbed. A tidy pond is better than no pond at all, but if you want to encourage slow worms, newts  and frogs, then natural is best! If you’d like to see an example of a wildlife friendly pond I’ve posted a short video on YouTube.

2. Plant a hedge.
I like to grow hazel hedges  for the foliage in the summer, nuts in the Autumn and we coppice the hazel every other year. The poles are really handy for all manor of things. Hazel is probably my most favourite tree of all, its just so versatile.

Another favourite of mine is willow. Really easy to grow and you can so much with it. I’m going to have a go at creating an arch next year.

Learn How To Create A Wildlife Friendly Garden With The Rural Gardener

Willow makes a perfect lush green screen

3. Build a compost heap.
Really easy to build your own compost heap and can be built out of pretty much anything. Try to keep it open on one side so the robins can get at the worms and they’ll repay you many times over.

4. Grow plenty of scented plants.
Grow lots of scented plants, the bees will love you for it and the smell is intoxicating late in the evening when the sun has warmed the flowers. In turn the bees will pollinate your fruit and veg. This year we planted a small cut flower garden and the amount of insects that came to visit was unbelievable.

Learn How To Create A Wildlife Friendly Garden With The Rural Gardener

Next year I’m planning to plant more cut flowers, so easy and so little maintenance required and the house had flowers pretty much from June onwards.

5. Don’t be too tidy.
Leave a few upturned clay pots around the garden for the toads to shelter and the odd brick pile. Position them anywhere you have a slug problem and the toads will come in to shelter and clean up your slug problem.

6. Keep a few chickens.
Chickens can be quite destructive but they will seek out bugs and grubs in the garden and dispatch them with consummate ease. The other good thing about the chickens is they will provide ready made feed in the form of droppings.

The girls enjoying their favourite passtime, having a dust bath!

The girls enjoying their favourite pass time, having a dust bath!

Just remember to put them away in the evening, or you may attract an unwelcome fox into your garden. I love foxes, but not if they plan to dine out on my girls!

7. Grow a tree …  better still grow lots of trees!
If for no other reason than they are just the most majestic of plants. We have a mature Walnut and a Beech and they are home to so many creatures, like bats and owls.

We put up a bat box last year and I’m pleased to report the bats have taken up residence.

I like to encourage bats in our garden to keep the midges under control. We like to have family BBQ’s in the summer without fear of being bitten by the little buggers! so we’re doing all we can to encourage the most interesting of our native mammals.

If your garden is too small for a tree, never fear, then try a small espalier fruit tree in a pot and get the best of both worlds, gorgeous fresh fruit in late summer and gorgeous blossom in the Spring. The bees will love you for it!

8. Mediterranean herbs.
Great for attracting pollinating insects … Plant thyme, marjoram and lavender near to your fruit trees and tomato plants. The bees will do there stuff and you can look forward to the sweetest tasting autumn puddings.

Learn How To Create A Wildlife Friendly Garden With The Rural Gardener

My herb bed is a tad overgrown now, but the bees just love the flowering marjoram and thyme.

9. Wood piles.
Build a few wood piles around the garden, mainly for the insects and creepy crawlers which the wrens and hedge birds tend to feed on, but also they make great shelters for the frogs and toads.

10. Bricks and Tiles.
We have a few bricks and roof tiles left over from the build chucked into redundant corner of the garden. I’ve noticed frogs and toads use the pile to hide from the direct sunlight.

Learn How To Create A Wildlife Friendly Garden With The Rural Gardener

Nice and cool for small mammals to hide in.

In the last 5 years that we’ve been living at Blackbirds I’ve found the secret to attracting wildlife is not one particular measure but essentially a combination of lots of different things that together produce a balance with nature.

Yeah, not everything will work for you but if you get the balance right, then you’ll notice a difference in the way you garden. Pest control will be managed by nature and you’ll have the most wonderful natural space, and all just outside your back door.

If you have any other suggestions for how we can make our garden more wildlife friendly we’d love to hear them.

Best wishes

Rural Gardener

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I hope you don’t mind but I thought I’d share a few of my favourite pictures from last year which certainly restore my faith in this wonderful English climate.

Click the picture for a large version.

10 Pictures To Restore Your Faith In The English Weather

10 Pictures To Restore Your Faith In The English Weather

10 Pictures To Restore Your Faith In The English Weather

10 Pictures To Restore Your Faith In The English Weather

10 Pictures To Restore Your Faith In The English Weather

10 Pictures To Restore Your Faith In The English Weather

10 Pictures To Restore Your Faith In The English Weather

10 Pictures To Restore Your Faith In The English Weather

10 Pictures To Restore Your Faith In The English Weather

10 Pictures To Restore Your Faith In The English Weather

Best Wishes,


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Easter in the 2013 gardening calendar is going to be exciting one for us in so many ways and if the weather is kind it’s certainly going to be a busy one!.

They’re predicting cold in most parts of the UK over the weekend so if you’re planning to head into the garden like me it looks like we’re going to need those extra layers.

Here are five jobs we’ll be doing in the garden this Easter weekend.

Job 1. Winter Prune The Grape vine, (Phoenix Vitis vinifera)

I’ve had a grape vine (Phoenix, Vitis vinifera) for 3 years and it always seems to do well, which I think is down to our thin chalky soil.


When it comes to looking after a grape vine I’ve learned over the years to treat em mean and keep em keen.  In other words don’t be afraid to prune your grape vine, unless you have a rambling vine in which case just let it do it’s own thing and thin out the growth later in the year. In my experience the harder you prune a grape vine the more it seems to want to respond.

I train mine as a cordon (I think it’s called the Guyot system) keeping the vine down to 2 main laterals which I run left and right on wires. I keep these laterals to around 10-12 buds max and keep them tied into wires using soft garden string.


As the buds break and grow away I train them up to the wires until there are around 4 nodes or buds per stem.  I then trim the subsequent growth to a minimum of 4 bunches per stem, which ensures all the energy goes into making loads of delicious grapes and not into growing more vine.

Job 2. Put Up Support For The Rasberrys

A couple of weeks ago I transplanted my raspberry  canes into a redundant part of the veg patch in the garden. I usually plant fruit canes in January, but given the cold weather the canes are still dormant, so they should survive the move.

If you don’t want your raspberry canes falling all over the place you’ll need to provide adequate support.  Don’t skimp in this area is my advice if you want an easy life later in the summer. I’ve learnt the hard way and used all sorts of methods from a piece of string tied between bamboo canes, too individually staking each cane (yes I really did stake every single cane).

The best solution I find is to take two or three 8 foot 4 x 4 inch square posts and cement them in a hole at least 18″ deep. Not cheap I know, but it will last much longer.  Then head to the local hardware shop and buy a few screw in wire connectors and some reasonable heavy gauge wire.


Fix the connectors to the inside of each post approximately 2 feet apart and run a length of the wire through the connectors and twist the ends to make a fixing. The secret is to make sure they are nice and tight.

If you’re planning to plant a few canes (or any soft fruit bushes) then my advice is prepare a trench in advice of planting if possible.  I usually dig a trench about a spades width across and a spades depth deep. You don’t need a massive trench as raspberries take up moisture through the fibrous roots that sit just below the surface, so avoid planting them too deep. Also the roots need oxygen so bury them too deep and they are less likely to survive. Bit like us really!

Into the trench goes a barrow load of compost which I fork into the soil.  I then plant the canes until the roots are completely covered. Throw in a sprinkle of fish blood and bone around the roots and heal them in nice and firm. Finally give them a good drink and they’ll do you proud.

Job 3. Pot On Last Years Softwood Cuttings.

For the last 3 years I’ve been learning how to raise plants from cuttings with varying degrees of success. Last year was my best year yet and I’m pleased to say 99% of the cuttings I managed to root have survived (so far) through a cold winter. Always amazes me just how resilient plants really are.

It’s really easy to raise plants from cuttings and anyone that reads my blog on a regular basis will know it’s become a bit of passion of mine. Last year I even managed to sell a few plants which brought in a little extra cash into the household budget.

Softwood Cutings

These are just a few of the plants I raised in 2012 just before they were going to the customer.

You can grow plants like these from softwood cuttings

You can grow plants like these from softwood cuttings

This weekend I’ll be potting up last years cuttings into larger pots so they can grow into great little plants, just as soon as the weather warms up that is!

Job 4. Spring Clean The Wildlife Pond.

If you want your wildlife pond to look like this …


and not like this …

Spring Clean The Wildlife Pond

… then it’s going to need a Spring clean.

I’ve noticed we already have frog spawn in the pond, so probably best to collect it all up in a bucket first and return it when you’re finished.

Basically all I do in the Spring is thin out the oxygenating plants (elodium) and remove as many of the fallen leaves and decaying plants as I can.  It’s important to remove leaves from a pond or they will eventually decompose and give off noxious gasses which will discourage the wildlife from coming to the pond.

I find the best tool for the job is a Spring rake just as long as you take care not to puncture the liner! Alternatively it’s on with the wellies or waders and be prepared to get wet! 🙂

Job 5. Tidy Up The Herbaceous Borders.

One of the most satisfying jobs in the garden at this time of the year in my view is clearing and preparing the herbaceous borders ready for the summer ahead. Nothing too strenuous of course, just a little light pruning on the roses and removing the dead or decaying growth from last years gems. The Lupins have already started which is a sign of great things to come.


One task I have to perform every year (and for most of the season come to that) is to remove as many of the large stones and flints that rise to surface each year. The borders seem to suffer the most as we are on chalk, on top of which is a layer of large flints and stone in this part of Hampshire. Great for trout rivers they tell me, but pain in the bum in the garden.

After I’ve cleared the beds of all debris I mulch with a good layer of well rotted garden compost. Always amazes me where it all goes, but sure enough by the end of the season it will all be consumed by the worms and other insect life and put back in to the soil. Nature is a truly wonderful thing.

Well that’s my weekend in the garden sorted.

I wonder what jobs you’re planning in the garden this Easter weekend?

Have a lovely Easter,

Best wishes,


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Three of the best taken at the wildlife pond yesterday.

The recent sunshine brings out the water lily flowers

Water Lily – Not sure of the varieties?

Not sure of the variety as they were given to me by a kind neighbour. All I did was take a couple of shoots from the parent plant last April  and planted them in a plastic basket filled with regular garden soil and covered the top with gravel. They sit on the bottom of the pond about 2 feet down. It’s a good idea to cover the top of the basket with gravel just to make sure the soil doesn’t float out into the pond.  When I planted them last April I had no idea I had two different varieties, which made for a lovely surprise when they produced these gorgeous blooms earlier this week.

An Easy To Grow Marginal Plant For Your Pond.

Iris growing in the banks of the wildlife pond

Water iris make a great marginal plant for any garden pond. You can grow them in a basket just like the lillies, but I prefer to plant straight into the soil on the slopes of the pond. Just make sure you keep the roots in water, or at least really damp soil and they will repay you handsomely with these wonderful ‘blousey’ flowers.

Tadpoles Are Growing Fast

Latest addition to the garden wildlife

Just had to include a pic of the latest additions to the pond wildlife! Some of the larger ones have started to grow their back legs, and the sunshine has brought them out to the edges, which I think is to do with the temperature of the water being that bit higher around the shallow edges.

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I managed to capture a pic of this little fella over the weekend as I was sitting by the pond, and thought I must share it with you. I think it is a form of dragon fly, but not really sure what sort?

Dragon Fly Captured By The Wildlife Pond By The Rural Gardener

Click for large image

We’re having hours of relaxation sitting by the pond watching the wildlife during this gorgeous weather.

Back soon,

Rural Gardener

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How to conserve water in the garden

When we first moved into Blackbirds we were fortunate to be on mains water, which essentially means the supply is pumped into the house by the local water company. We were soon brought down to earth in March 2010, when we had our first water meter installed. This meant we were going to be charged for every drop of water we use, which with a large garden,  2 lodgers and a polytunnel might result in some fairly hefty water bills, so I just had to find ways to reduce our overall consumption, recycle what we could, and collect and store as much as possible.

I thought it might help other gardeners if I shared the process I went through and list a few of the ideas that I adopted along the way.

1. Conduct Your Own Water Audit

First have a look around around your property and see if/where you might be able to collect water. Most properties have a roof leading to a downpipe, so why not collect and store the rainwater. You can use it on the garden, to wash the car, or to wash the worst of the muck of your hands after a busy day in the garden.

When I did my own audit I found I could collect rainwater from the roof of the house, the chicken house,  the workshop and the potting shed, which actually amounted to quite a lot of stored water.  I did think about investing in a small solar panel and a pump to pump the rainwater from the tanks to the garden, but to be honest I’m happy using a watering can, it does wonders for my biceps and it costs virtually nothing to implement!

2. Improve Your Soil 

There really is no substitute for digging in barrow loads of manure into the vegetable beds.  Coupled with regular mulching this is probably the best way to ensure your plants stand a good chance of making it through a dry summer, without too much watering.

3. Check the soil before watering

Sounds simple but before I do any watering  I check the soil first to see if it actually needs watering.  It might look dry on the surface, but try sticking a trowel in nice and deep and you may find underneath is  just fine. I like to water in the evening, around 7.00pm when the sun is on the way down. This helps prevent moisture evaporating from the soil before darkness sets in.

4. Sensible Watering

A friend gave me a great tip once. Try giving your plants a really good water once a week, and make sure it is enough to get right down to the roots. I used to water little and often, which was a complete pain as it took loads of time. This way I now only have to do it once a week, and the plants (especially the veg) seem to grow stronger as a result.

5. Collect Rainwater

There are many water butts on the Market, but if you have an old plastic dustbin it will work just as well, as the shop bought models.This is a shop bought model I bought at the weekend for £26 from SCATS, and which is made from 100% recycled plastic. Some connect directly into the down pipe, and can be shut off when the tank is full, while others are simply fed direct from the down pipe.

Try and get as large as you can afford, or you won’t be able to collect very much, but of course something is better than nothing. If you can find more than one they can be attached using a simple plastic pipe fitting, then as soon as the first tank is full it will start to fill the second.

6. Consider Installing A Rainwater Harvester

I read a surprising statistic the other day, that 24,000 liters of water will fall on the average house in 1 year. With that amount of free water available, it makes perfect sense to capture as much of it as possible.  We are fortunate at Blackbirds as we  installed a water harvesting system when we built the house. It supplements our mains water supply by around 40%.

Basically a water harvester is a huge plastic tank sunk into the ground, and fed by the downpipes from around the house in exactly the same way as a water butt. Ours holds approximately 3000 litres of clean water when full, which we use for the toilets, washing machine and garden. If you’re thinking about investing in a rain harvester, the best advice I can give you is go for the biggest one you can possibly afford, and buy it from a reputable dealer. You’ll be surprised just how much money a harvester will save you, but it can be very disruptive while it is being installed, but the end certainly justifies the means.

7. Build a Garden Pond

Another great way to collect rain water is a garden pond. They are fairly simple to construct and well worth it if you have the space.  We built ours in April this year and it’s constant source of interest with all the wildlife that use it as a bath, or drink from. Although we don’t rely on our pond for watering the garden, in a dry spell it does provide us with another option.

Try building a wildlife pond

Garden Ponds are a useful source of rainwater

8. Mulching

Although we collect rainwater we never take it for granted and also place as much emphasis on conserving water.  Mulching is a cost effective way of retaining much needed moisture and an added bonus is the worms will drag it into the soil which improves the moisture retention qualities of the soil immensely.

Mulching is  basically taking a couple of inches of well rotted material and layering it around the base of the plant, to help conserve  moisture.  I mulch most of my veg patch, and if I run out of compost I use a small amount of grass cuttings, which works ok, but does go a nasty brown colour, after a few days.

Preserve moisture by mulching around cucumber plants

Preserve moisture by mulching around cucumber plants

9. Grow Drought Resistant Plants

As I said earlier, In Hampshire we are prone to long dry periods which can make growing some plants almost impossible in open ground, but it does have it’s advantages. For one thing our herb garden does really well, especially the Mediterranean herbs like Rosemary, Thyme, Lavender and Marjoram. Always amazes me, I lavish all the treatment in the world on my herb garden, but the seedlings that are growing in the cracks in the paving happily grow away, and the flavour is so much more intense.

I do grow broad leaved herbs like Parsley, Mint and Lovage, but they need a little more attention as they prefer a rich moist soil. As with the veg beds I dig in extra compost. I also grow them quite close together as the shade tends to stops the ground drying out quite so fast.

Other examples of drought lovers I like to grow include Buddleia, Mock Orange and Echinacea. We grow them all at Blackbirds, and they seem to respond well to our dry, chalky well drained soil.

10. Lawns

It may be tempting to turn the sprinkler on but we haven’t watered our lawn for the last 2 years, and it’s still looking good. I think part of the secret is to grow drought tolerant grass seed in the first place, and not to cut it too short. It does go brown from time to time but we live with it, and it’s something to look forward to knowing it will be green again.

11. Polytunnel

When it comes to the Polytunnel it’s slightly different in that it is more likely to dry out, so I dig in plenty of compost deep into the beds, and water close to the stem of the plant, so as not to waste it watering the space between the rows. You can find out more on how I prepare the polytunnel for planting, here

I do have an overhead misting system, that uses water from the rain harvester, but I try to limit it’s use, unless a lot of rain is forecast.

Overhead Watering in the Polytunnel

Not only is collecting and storing rainwater key to our desire to be as self sufficient as we possibly can, but it also makes perfect sense. Why pay for costly tap water, just to water the garden, when with a little bit of effort is can be collected, for free?

Also I find my garden responds to rainwater better than tap water.  Have you noticed how much better your plants look when there has been a down pour? The plants clearly prefer it, and it also helps with my gardening budget.

As our climate continues to produce warmer Spring and Summer temperatures we will need to continue to find inventive ways to collect, and store one of our most important natural resources,  if the garden at Blackbirds is to continue to flourish.

I’m now off to learn about Permaculture, which I’m told,  is a great alternative to the more conventional growing methods.

Best wishes,

Rural Gardener

As I sit here writing this blog post we’ve just had a week of really heavy rainfall at Blackbirds. Pleased to report all the water butts are full. Wahey!

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